The May Festival Rising

There are not too many hours of spiritual twilight in this busy age. The Festival supplies one such space for refreshment; an hour for reflection ...
– Anonymous U-M student
  1. Chapter 1 A Tradition Within a Tradition

    When the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra takes the stage at Hill Auditorium on September 27 — its first performance in Ann Arbor since 1994 — music lovers of a certain age will inevitably reflect on the cherished association between the orchestra and its host.

    Under the legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy, the orchestra performed at Michigan every spring from 1936 until 1982.

    It was a long and beloved tradition within an even longer one — the University of Michigan’s May Festival.

  2. Chapter 2 A Cancellation and an Opportunity

    It began with one of those cancellations that have threatened to crush the hearts of music lovers in every time and place.

    Early in 1894, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was booked to make its fifth appearance in Ann Arbor. It was to give a single concert in May. But some forgotten snafu intervened, and the Boston Festival Orchestra, a smaller but worthy substitute, agreed to fill in — but only if the University Musical Society could pay for not just one concert but three.

    Albert Augustus Stanley, professor of music, saw the opportunity he had been hoping for. This was a chance to create a truly big event to energize the local music scene.

    Stanley proposed that this three-concert affair be called a festival. It would be held in the auditorium on the second floor of University Hall, the great classroom building on State Street that stood about where Angell Hall stands now. And it would be not just a three-day festival for this one year. It would be Ann Arbor’s “First Annual May Festival.” UMS’s board agreed.

    To ensure a big turnout, Stanley advertised the event in newspapers across the state and invited the railroads to offer special rates. Throngs of out-of-town music fans bought rail tickets. But, living away from Ann Arbor, they couldn’t buy tickets to the concerts. Stanley looked on with rising apprehension as an oversized crowd lined up at the doors of University Hall for the first night.

    Seating in the auditorium consisted of undivided wooden benches with an estimated capacity of about 2,200. When the doors were opened, the crowd streamed in to claim whatever space they could. Soon a great squeezing ensued. The aisles were crammed. More people filled the lobbies. So when the first overture of the first May Festival began, no one can say just how many eager ears were listening.

  3. Chapter 3 “Overflowing Enthusiasm”

    Not many years had passed since Ann Arbor, like every other small town in the American West, had been a musical desert. That had begun to change with Professor Henry Simmons Frieze, a professor of Latin and a music devotee who joined the U-M faculty before the Civil War. But it was hard going.

    In the late 1870s, Frieze organized a singing group called the Ann Arbor Choral Union, drawing together men and women who sang in several church choirs. It was a town-and-gown operation, as was the University Musical Society, which Frieze and others organized to put on concerts and recitals, often with visiting musicians. The Choral Union became part of UMS.

    It was a start, but quality lagged, as did community support. Assiduous recruiting for the Choral Union got the number up to 170 singers, but only 70 listeners showed up for their first performance. A student chorale tried to get something going, but they were “in no condition to appear before the public,” as one observer confessed. Michigan’s first professor of music, Calvin Brainerd Cady, was a pioneer in music education but not much for putting on a show.

    So, to Ann Arborites longing for more good music, the appointment of Albert Stanley in Cady’s place was applauded, especially when it became clear that Stanley was something of a dynamo.

    Then 37, Stanley had been trained in a German conservatory as a classical organist, conductor and composer. He was chosen for the U-M post by his fellow Rhode Islander, President James B. Angell, who had been searching for a strong replacement for Cady and knew a rising star when he saw one.

    Stanley soon became musical director of the University Musical Society. With basset-hound cheeks and a round, bald pate, he was quickly known among students as “Dad” Stanley. They turned out each week when he conducted rousing renditions of college songs. (It was Stanley who wrote the music to Michigan’s soft hymn, “Laudes Atque Carmina.”) He was also a fierce organizer. When President Angell’s wife, Sarah Caswell Angell, privately told Stanley the Choral Union was “dead as a doornail,” he promptly brought it back in force.

    “With that overflowing enthusiasm which is so characteristic of the man,” an admirer wrote, “[Stanley] went to work with unbounded energy and confidence, and in a short time had rallied the scattered forces and put new life into the whole movement.”

    Stanley preached the gospel of music with an evangelist’s zeal. It was the most portable of the fine arts, he pointed out. “The greatest pictures, the greatest statues, the most sublime architecture, we may not bring into a community like ours…,” he wrote. But a Beethoven symphony could be played anywhere, and with the concert halls and instruments of the modern era, it would be “richer and more beautiful than in the master’s day.”

    It was also affordable, especially when concerts were combined in the sort of multi-day event that Stanley envisioned for Ann Arbor.

    And here’s the key fact about the Festival’s appeal, hard to grasp in the 21st century, when every musical recording ever made is available at the touch of a button in one’s pocket: The only way to hear great music in the 1890s was at a live performance.

  4. Chapter 4 The First Festival

    That first May Festival, thanks in no small part to “Dad” Stanley’s promotion, was a stunning success.

    The centerpiece of the three concerts was a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The Choral Union, painstakingly rehearsed by Professor Stanley, performed at two of the three events. Accompanying the Boston orchestra were the German baritone Max Henrich and the spectacular Austrian-born soprano Emma Juch. (Her father, an emigrant to Detroit, had refused to allow his daughter to prepare for a professional career. She defied him in secret, and when he finally heard her perform, he was so moved that he not only capitulated but also became her coach. Her Ann Arbor audience was no less enraptured than Mr. Juch had been.)

    As the final concert came to an end, rain was drenching the campus. Out-of-towners made their way to the Ann Arbor Depot only to find that the special trains arranged to take them home were at that moment standing idle in Detroit. Grumpy waiting ensued. Concert-goers no longer in the embrace of great music were now soggy, exhausted and hungry. Someone pounded on the door of a grocer who got up and brought the waiting crowd a spread of crackers, cheese and bologna. Finally, three hours late, the trains arrived.

    It did not matter. Reviews of the first May Festival were ecstatic. Stanley set to work on plans for the next year. Instead of three concerts, there would be four. Soon there would be five concerts, then six, with three different conductors. To keep the crowds manageable, Stanley raised ticket prices and dropped out-of-town advertising. But each year the Festival concerts were still packed to the rafters.

  5. Chapter 5 An Annual Feast

    The May Festival was a leading example – perhaps even a culmination – of a powerful American movement to engender the love of music in sparsely settled regions far from the centers of culture on the eastern seaboard.

    In the early 1800s, conventions of music teachers held events from town to town to teach music and evangelize for it, a musical version of Protestant camp meetings. The spread of these conventions went hand-in-hand with the development of music clubs that grew and flourished into major musical institutions such as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which had its origins in a humble club of local musicians in the 1700s.

    The conventions, in time, spawned larger festivals, a principal means of support for professional musicians and part of a deliberate effort at cultural uplift.

    Albert Stanley was both a student and a practitioner of that movement.

    Music promoters and teachers hoped the multi-day infusion of music in small cities and towns would stick, spawning local choral groups, orchestras and fans. Sometimes the festivals had that effect and sometimes they didn’t, but there was always next year’s event to hope for.

    “Backsliders there were in plenty,” Stanley remarked, “but they were generally found in the front seats at the next convention, and so the work went merrily on.”

    At the same time, college campuses were spawning musical societies, starting at Dartmouth and Harvard, where the Handel and Haydn Society founded a triennial music festival in 1857. Like the curricula in music arising at universities and colleges, the campus musical societies were devoted to the idea that music was not an idle amusement but a great art form worthy of study and scholarship.

    In a university setting like Ann Arbor, Stanley believed, the right materials were in place for a great musical efflorescence: a music faculty; vibrant local ensembles such as the Choral Union; and a strong University Musical Society to bring great performers to town.

    But a catalyst was needed. A great annual festival, with major artists and performers, would inspire the community toward greater appreciation of music throughout the year, with frequent orchestra concerts, choral concerts, recitals, chamber concerts – and, of course, classes and lessons.

    “If a festival is an annual, biennial, or triennial gorging, to be followed by acute musical dyspepsia,” Stanley wrote, “it has no true value and should be discouraged. If it is a part of a comprehensive scheme of musical education, its value cannot be overestimated.”

    He had a ready answer to a question he often heard: Shouldn’t music just be enjoyed for its own sake, as a source of pure amusement and delight, without all this folderol about “education”?

    “Yes!” he replied, “but the greater the knowledge, the more intense the pleasure.”

  6. Chapter 6 Rite of Spring

    The successes of the early years rolled on and upward. The May Festival became the robust yearly ritual that Stanley had hoped for, especially when it moved from University Hall to the new Hill Auditorium in 1913.

    The response of students was extraordinary, thanks in part to U-M’s administration, which cancelled classes on Fridays during the week of May Festival to make it easier for students to attend. They heard many of the era’s great musicians and soloists, including the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski and the soprano Lily Pons. “The development in the musical taste of the student body has been wonderfully rapid…,” wrote John Effinger, a professor of French who would become dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, “and it is to the Choral Union series of concerts and to the May Festival concerts in particular that all this is due.”

    In the era of World War I, an anonymous student writer tried to capture the May Festival’s meaning as a rite of spring: “Ann Arbor is itself the spirit of youth … This feeling is never absent from the Festival, with its swelling chorus inside Hill Auditorium and outside the fragrant Spring beauty which makes of all the University town a park. … There are not too many hours of spiritual twilight in this busy age. The Festival supplies one such space for refreshment; an hour for reflection … This, even higher than the music, is the mission of the event.”

    The Festival’s success over the long haul was aided by Charles Sink, a canny U-M graduate who served as a longtime UMS president beginning in the 1920s. Sink never picked up an instrument but he loved music. More important, he was, as one chronicler put it, “a tough-minded businessman who was not afraid to say no … keeping a sharp eye on the till.”

    In later years Sink tallied up the Festival’s early achievements:

    In the first 11 May Festivals there were 45 choral concerts (most performed by the Choral Union); 25 symphony concerts; seven concerts by string quartets; 15 recitals by soloists; five violin recitals; and 14 miscellaneous concerts. Those Festivals were put on at a total cost of close to $150,000 – the equivalent of $4 million in 2018. In 1940 Sink calculated that since Albert Stanley’s arrival in Ann Arbor, concerts on the campus had attracted about four million paid admissions, many of them at the May Festival.

    The Boston Festival Orchestra performed at the May Festival for 11 seasons. It was succeeded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was the mainstay until 1935. The Philadelphia Orchestra began its long association with the Festival in 1936. Its conductor, Eugene Ormandy, appeared at every Festival until his retirement in 1982.

  7. Chapter 7 Finale

    In 1932, Albert Stanley died in his sleep at age 80 in the midst of the 39th May Festival. The Festival outlived him for more than 60 years – just over a century in all.

    Festival-goers heard many of the world’s greatest performers in classical music and opera, including Ezio Pinza, Beverly Sills, William Warfield, Giovanni Martinelli, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Rudolf Serkin, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Andre Watts, Glenn Gould and Jessye Norman, who first sang at the May Festival at age 28, five years after earning her master’s degree in music at Michigan.

    In the 1960s the event was jolted by a major change in U-M’s academic calendar. The winter semester was now going to conclude at the end of April, not the middle of June. By mid-May, the season of the Festival, most students would be gone.

    The Festival’s audience grew grayer. To some, the music of classical composers took on the scent of tea rooms and ladies’ hats. And the rise of recorded music put increasing pressure on the tradition of classical music performed in concert halls.

    By the 1980s UMS was struggling to preserve a robust season during the academic year, and the Festival began to lose money. Kenneth Fischer, appointed director of UMS in 1987, found local underwriting to keep it alive. Even so, deficits ran to $100,000 per year. By the early 1990s, it was a ritual still beloved by loyalists but no longer able to sustain its great expense.

    On the last night of the final Festival — May 14, 1995 — the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection.” Alas, there can be no resurrection of the May Festival in its old form. But the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance at Hill in September will rekindle the memory of a grand tradition.


    Sources included the University Musical Society articles from The Inlander, Michigan Alumnus, and The Michigan Daily; Richard Crawford, “100 Years of Music at Michigan, 1880-1980”; the papers of Albert Stanley and the University Musical Society, Bentley Historical Library; and Charles A. Sink, “The University Musical Society,” Washtenaw Impressions, June 1954.